April 13, 2021
If I had harbored even an iota of doubt about Junior Chandler’s innocence, it would’ve been vaporized by the podcast episode below.
Most dramatically, the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic’s meticulously assembled “Impossibility Exhibit” demonstrates that Junior was nowhere near the scene of his imaginary crimes….
But is the court paying attention?
Today’s random selection from the Little Rascals Day Care archives….
Aug. 9, 2012
Text of Bill Lucey’s blog item about Lew Powell’s writing on the Little Rascals case.
Retired Charlotte Observer Columnist Lew Powell Pursuing
State’s Admission of Guilt in Witch Hunt of Wrongly Accused
After being laid-off from the Charlotte Observer after 34 years in 2009, Lew Powell took the news not as the end, but as a new beginning to explore with great vigor a single issue (a colossal miscarriage of justice in his view) that has consumed him since the 1990’s. It has also freed him to spend more time on his real passion: the unique history of the Tar Heel State.
Since leaving the Observer, Powell has contributed more than 700 posts to the North Carolina Miscellany blog, a blog produced, edited, and maintained by the North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which documents the history, literature, and culture of North Carolina. It is reportedly the largest state collection of its kind in the country.
Powell is exceptionally adept at unraveling the origins of symbols and traditions in North Carolina. His 34 years of newspaper experience at the Observer gives the North Carolina Miscellany a reliable voice with over three decades of institutional experience to draw from, as well as become the beneficiaries of a treasure chest of memorabilia. Powell has donated 2,698 North Carolina-related pin-back buttons, badges, ribbons, cloth swatches, promotional cards and stickers, which he collected over the years.
His unique grasp of North Carolina has resulted in books that can’t help but benefit residents of the Tar Heel State starved to discover a treasury of unique and largely unknown facts. Powell is author of the “Ultimate North Carolina Quiz Book’’, “On This Day in North Carolina’’ and “Lew Powell’s Carolina Follies’’ , a collection of 200 of his satirical year-in-review pages from The Charlotte Observer.
Despite his strong interest in North Carolina history, beginning about a year ago, Powell spends the bulk of his time researching and collecting facts on the Little Rascals Day Care Center, a facility located in Edenton, North Carolina, which had been owned by Betsy and Bob Kelly.
At the Center, Kelly was charged along with six others in 1989 with molesting 29 children attending the Little Rascals day care center. He was convicted in 1992 and sentenced to 12 life terms. Kathryn Dawn Wilson, a cook at the Center was found guilty in 1993. Both convictions, however, were overturned when the North Carolina Court of Appeals stated that there were “legal errors’’ by the prosecution. On May 23, 1997, all charges against were dismissed. Elizabeth Kelly and another defendant reached plea bargains in which they agreed to jail time served, according to reporting from The Associated Press.
The case caught the eye of Powell ever since the airing of the PBS special in which “Frontline“ producer Ofra Bikel profiled Edenton, N.C., a town in Chowan County, North Carolina (population 4,966) located in the state’s Inner Banks region. The 1991 report chronicled the way in which this small sleepy town was torn by allegations of child abuse at the Little Rascals Day-Care Center. In 1993, Frontline’s follow-up investigation raised serious questions about the evidence and the fairness of the trials. Between 1991 and 1997, “Frontline’’ devoted eight hours to the plight of the Edenton Seven, leaving many, perhaps millions, shocked at the way North Carolina so recklessly prosecuted the case.
Powell was so outraged by the case in which he insists innocent people were wrongly accused in what was nothing more than a witch hunt, has since started a blog, littlerascalsdaycarecase.org .
Powell said since October, he posts about three times a week, updating it with more information and relevant material. “Retirement has allowed me to reexamine details of the case,’’ Powell said, “to put it in the context of a decade of day-care ritual-abuse panic and to question those who invented and prosecuted the completely groundless charges.
“Most interesting to me has been the refusal of all the theoreticians and therapists behind the “moral panic” to acknowledge that “science and the law have completely discredited the interviewing techniques that led to Little Rascals,’’ Powell explained to me.
In this highly controversial case, which drew the attention of the national media, children testified they were forced to have sex with adults and each other at the day care center and other places. Tales of spaceships and trained sharks were also part of their testimony. The defense long argued the children were “coached’’ into telling manufactured stories that were more in tune with the parents “fears’’ than the reality of what actually happened.
Though the accused had their cases overturned, Powell is mainly irked that the state continues to claim they were guilty and refuses to acknowledge mistakes were made in their unsubstantiated prosecutorial methods.
One of Powell’s goals, however quixotic it may be, is to secure a statement of innocence from the State of North Carolina.
In a letter he wrote to Roy Cooper, North Carolina attorney general, Powell likens the case to the 2006 Duke Lacrosse scandal in which false charges of rape by three members of the team were made and led to the disbarment of lead prosecutor Mike Nifong. In his letter to the North Carolina Attorney General, Powell mentions the state granted the defendants a “statement of innocence.’’ Powell requested the state take similar action with those wrongly accused in the Little Rascal case.
In his letter, Powell writes: “For more than a decade, beginning in the 1980s, day care centers across the United States were victimized by a wave of wholly unsubstantiated charges of ‘ritual sexual abuse.’ The testimony of child-witnesses, corrupted by misguided therapists, resulted in dozens of convictions and incarcerations. The defendants were innocent victims of a ‘moral panic’ that bore striking similarities to the Salem witch hunts 300 years earlier.’’
Powell argues the case not only shattered innocent lives, “but also left a deep and ugly stain on the reputation of the State of North Carolina.’’
With Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift having signed a resolution in 2001, proclaiming the innocence of the victims of the Salem Witch Trials, why not, Powell asks, shouldn’t the same resolution be extended to the Edenton Seven?
“Exoneration for the Edenton Seven seems as distant a prospect as ever,’’ Powell tells me. Still, despite having the former district attorney slamming the phone in his ear, when he asked him if still believed they were guilty, Powell said he continues to pursue more leads, and still has stacked in his garage 11 unopened boxes of trial transcripts.
Before landing at the Observer in 1974 as a feature writer, Powell was a reporter and editor at the Jacksonville (Fla.) Journal, and the Delta Democrat-Times. He has additionally contributed articles to the Nation, Columbia Journalism Review, and The New York Times op-ed page.
It was at the Observer where Powell met his wife, Dannye Romine.
Born in the rural town of Helena, Arkansas, Powell grew up in a farming family in Mississippi, where he graduated from the University of Mississippi with a degree in accounting.
When he retired from the Observer in 2009, Powell was the paper’s Forum editor.
– Bill Lucey
August 9, 2012
Oct. 21, 2011
How would you handle six years behind bars after being wrongfully convicted? Here’s how Bob Kelly did it:
“In jail (in Chowan County before being found guilty) there was nothing but sitting and waiting. Central Prison was easier – I could work.
“A warden told me, ‘Whoever kills Bob Kelly will have a trophy. I can put you in lockup, where you’ll be safe.’ But that would’ve meant spending 23 hours a day in a cell. I said, ‘Put me in the general population. I’ve got 12 life sentences, and I’m not going to do my time hiding.’
“But I tried to be smart. It was two years before I went outside in the yard. All I could think of was, if I got in a fight, how would that affect the appellate court?… Only one time did a jailhouse gangster lay his hands on me, and I realized I had to stand up to him to keep it from happening again….
“My first job was janitor in G block. I waxed the floor, emptied the trash, kept it like my home. They don’t allow bleach, because it would get thrown in the guards’ eyes, but I managed to talk a guy in the laundry room out of a bottle. It was great for spraying down the showers. My block was the only one in the whole prison that smelled like Clorox….
“My next job was running the canteen for lockup. The guys who had been there before me had watered down the Cokes and coffee and pocketed the difference. I wanted to run the best canteen I could, so I started giving full measure….
“You know what the other prisoners said? ‘You’re stupid – don’t you know you could be making money?”
Jan. 16, 2016
“Joseph Sledge spent 37 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. At his trial, the state paid a lying snitch to testify against him. While he was in prison, (Jon David, the latest Bladen County district attorney) opposed the DNA testing that would eventually prove Sledge’s innocence. And when the long-delayed tests showed Sledge wasn’t the culprit, the state waited another two years to release him from prison.
“Now that Sledge is finally free, the only person being punished is the lawyer who fought to prove his innocence, Chris Mumma. On Thursday, the State Bar found that Mumma violated professional ethics by testing a water bottle for DNA without permission from its owner – all in an attempt to gain an innocent man his freedom against long odds. (The test of the water bottle was inconclusive and had no impact on the final outcome.)….
“In all the cases where Mumma has freed innocent people, no prosecutor has ever faced charges….Instead, the State Bar sent a message that lawyers who expose the system’s misdeeds could be subject to retribution….”
– From “Let’s punish lawyers who put innocent people in prison, instead of those who free them” by Kristin Collins at NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (Jan. 15)
Three years ago I took DA David at his word when he promised:
“I really see us as sharing the goal of making sure (Sledge’s) conviction rests on credible and substantial evidence. I’m going to go where the truth leads in this matter.”
I was naïve. As it turned out, David’s true passion wasn’t for exonerating an innocent man but for punishing his lawyer.
May 17, 2013
From Betsy Kelly’s comments at the ceremony awarding Ofra Bikel the 2007 John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism:
“I stand before you tonight because of Ofra Bikel. She spent many hours with my family and with some of the most hurtful and hateful people. She turned many (viewers) around to believe in the truth. The day she walked into my life I had somebody to hold onto… and she opened the door and she led me out…..”
From Nancy Smith Barrow’s comments:
“I thought: She comes from another planet, she doesn’t speak Southern, what can she do?
“I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to climb into that hole we were in…
“Ofra took us where we were, where hell was raining down, where people who have known us since we were born would cross the street not to meet us….
“Ofra, I owe you for the most precious thing in my life (my sister), you brought her back…..”
From Ofra Bikel’s comments:
“I was this close to not doing (‘Innocence Lost’). I said (to assistant Rachel Dretzin), ‘Are you crazy? What are we going to do in a little town with a little hotel that doesn’t take American Express?’…. Anyway, we went, and the first day I realized we were staying….
“The whole country was awash in sexual abuse stories, but there was nothing less likely than for Edenton, North Carolina, to be involved in this satanic conspiracy… The town was calm on outside but seething on the inside with these rumors of terrible sexual abuse, started by one kid, then three kids, then 10 kids, then 80 and then close to a hundred… until they decided to close the list….
“(After the last Little Rascals charges were dropped) I was left with two very strong feelings: how many things can go wrong in the justice system…. and what a powerful tool we had in our hands with the television documentary….”
June 12, 2014
“He thinks the continued treatment of these cases as a modern-day episode of mass hysteria does disservice to children and even puts them in danger.
“ ‘We have, over the last 20 years, discounted the word of children who might testify about sexual abuse,’ he writes. ‘We have become more worried about overreacting to child sexual abuse than we are about underreacting to it.’
“If that were the legacy of the day-care cases, it would be a damning one. But when I spoke to psychologists in the field – those Professor Cheit cites respectfully, as well as those he attacks – they gave a different account of the science at the heart of this history….”
– From “Abuse Cases, and a Legacy of Skepticism” by Emily Bazelon in the New York Times (June 9)
Thank you, Ms. Bazelon. In the category of “fat books in desperate search of a reason to exist,” Cheit’s “The Witch-Hunt Narrative” belongs right up there with William D. Cohan’s contemporaneous “The Price of Silence,” an account of the Duke lacrosse case that sympathizes not with the railroaded (and later exonerated!) defendants but with District Attorney Mike Nifong, who was disbarred and briefly jailed for conspiring to rig the case against them.
At the core of each book is the unsubstantiated contention that something surely must have happened, either at a Durham party house and at countless day cares. Fortunately, Cohan and Cheit can only gratuitously smear the reputations of innocent defendants, not put them in prison – unlike Little Rascals expert witness Mark “where there’s smoke there’s fire” Everson.
Oct. 29, 2012
“For at least eight years American law enforcement has been aggressively investigating the allegations of victims of ritualistic abuse. There is little or no evidence for the portion of their allegations that deals with large-scale baby breeding, human sacrifice and organized satanic conspiracies.”
– Kenneth V. Lanning, supervisory special agent at the behavioral science unit, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, FBI Academy, Quantico, Va. (Aug. 19, 1991)
Two decades later, what’s most striking about agent Lanning’s statement isn’t the content – what could’ve been more predictable? – but the context: The moral panic held such sway that the FBI was forced to devote no less than eight years to discrediting it.
Here’s what Lanning said about day care allegations:
“Children currently or formerly attending a day care center gradually describe their victimization at the center and at other locations to which they were taken by the day care staff. The cases include multiple victims and offenders, fear, and bizarre or ritualistic activity, with a particularly high number of female offenders. Descriptions of strange games, insertion of foreign objects, killing of animals, photographing of activities, and wearing of costumes are common. The accounts of the young children, however, do not seem to be quite as ‘bizarre‘ as those of the adult survivors, with fewer accounts of human sacrifice….”
Angered by the report, some therapists accused Lanning of being a satanist who had infiltrated the FBI to advance the cause.
Oct. 14, 2013
“Whether Nancy Lamb should be promoted to district attorney is not simply a question of Democrats vs. Republicans. (Lamb is a Democrat; the decision on whether to appoint her to fill the rest of the late Frank Parrish’s term rests with Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican.)
“A quarter-century ago, Lamb played a crucial role in the wrongful prosecution of the Edenton Seven, defendants in the Little Rascals Day Care case. Little Rascals was an especially notorious example of a wave of ‘satanic ritual abuse’ day-care prosecutions during the ’80s and early ’90s — virtually all of them based on hysteria and a misguided campaign to ‘Believe the Children.’ Today no respected social scientist believes these bizarre claims were anything more than a ‘moral panic.’
“Although she ranked below District Attorney H. P. Williams and Assistant Attorney General Bill Hart, it was Nancy Lamb who served not only as the prosecution’s closer in the courtroom, but also its public face. And it was Lamb who, after Williams dropped off the case, continued to cling to the discredited ‘ritual abuse’ fantasy and who vindictively conjured up an unrelated charge against Bob Kelly after his conviction had been resoundingly overturned by the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
“Little Rascals will remain a stain on the state of North Carolina until the Edenton Seven receive a statement of innocence such as that given the Duke lacrosse defendants. Neither the prosecutors nor their ill-trained therapists have ever expressed any regrets or made any amends. To even be considered for district attorney, Nancy Lamb should be willing to address her responsibility. If she still wants to argue that the defendants were guilty, let her do so.”
– From a letter I wrote last week to the Elizabeth City Daily Advance, the only daily newspaper in the seven-county First Prosecutorial District, taking issue with its editorial support of Nancy Lamb’s appointment as district attorney. Editorial is here; page PDF; text cache.
The 900-word editorial could come up with “only one possible explanation for McCrory’s reluctance to appoint her: partisan politics.” Unmentioned was Lamb’s responsibility in the district’s most infamous case – perhaps the Advance has forgotten? Or thinks she deserves to benefit from a prosecutorial statute of limitations?
My letter has yet to appear.